At work, learning doesn’t occur only in a class or workshop or offsite. It also occurs on the job – through trial and error, conversations, and observation, among other things. Wherever and however learning occurs, feedback is an essential element. If you try something and it doesn’t work, that’s feedback. If you try something else and it does, that’s also feedback.
Feedback helps you to know what to continue to do or stop doing. It helps you to know what to do differently and how to do it. Sometimes the situation itself provides the feedback. But often a person provides the feedback.
When a person does that, it’s important to recognize that not all feedback helps learning. We’re going to talk about feedback that helps and feedback that doesn’t. We’re also going to talk about feedback that can be helpful in some situations but not all.
To start, let’s divide the topic into three areas:
- Type of information
- Tailored to the person
Type of information
By this I mean things like whether the information is specific or general, personal or about what the individual is learning.
Feedback that is helpful
Feedback that is helpful is focused on the task not the person.
- It is specific.
- It is behavioral. That means it describes observable behavior – what the learner did and/or said.
- If there is praise, the praise is about the learner’s effort not his or her intelligence or personality traits. This helps build what Carol Dweck calls a development mindset.
Point out and/or help the learner to track their progress. Do this by linking the feedback to the goal. Seeing that you are making progress toward a goal can be very motivating.
Feedback that is not helpful
Generally speaking, feedback that does not help learning is the opposite of feedback that is helpful.
General or vague information does not help learning. For example, telling someone to do better is not helpful. The individual does not know what specifically he or she needs to do better, how to do it differently, or why. Because of that, the individual cannot act on it.
Praise doesn’t help learning very much. It might feel good, but unless the individual also receives specific information about what to continue doing, praise is easy to ignore and often is. Praise also doesn’t help build intrinsic motivation, which people need if they are going to be responsible for their own learning.
Feedback that focuses on personality traits or level of intelligence does not help learning. It shifts the focus from the task to the individual receiving the feedback whether he or she has the capacity to learn. This can lead people to believe they were born with a fixed amount of intelligence or talent – what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. Here’s how that can play out.
If someone says you are dumb and you accept that evaluation, you might also believe there’s no point in trying. If someone says you are very good at your job, you might want to avoid the risk of not appearing very good by minimizing the risks you take and/or not taking on new assignments where you might not do as well. In the end, this can be self-defeating.
A performance rating or evaluation does not help learning. There are two reasons:
- It’s not supposed to help learning. It’s an evaluation. You’ve already done the learning. This tells you how well you did. (For those not afraid of a bit of research jargon, look up formative and summative feedback on Google.)
- When people receive a rating or some other evaluation, their focus is not learning, it’s on the rating. Usually, it’s on how they feel. Happy, if it was a good evaluation. Puzzled, defensive, maybe angry if it wasn’t a good evaluation
Not helping the learner to see their progress in relation to the goal means they don’t have a sense of how far they’ve come or how much closer they are to achieving their goal. This can be frustrating and de-motivating.
Tailored to the individual
While the guidelines above apply to all feedback, what follows really depends on the individual and whether they are new to a topic or have related knowledge and experience.
A learner who is new to a topic doesn’t necessarily know what to pay attention to or safely ignore. Too much detail can feel overwhelming. It’s most useful to give the new learner only the information they need and then stop.
Generally that means: what to do, how to do it, and why. That’s all.
Asking leading questions, giving hints, or hoping the learner will figure it out can work with someone who has related knowledge and experience. It won’t work with someone who is new to a topic. Just tell them what you want them to know.
If you’re not sure about the individual’s level of knowledge/experience, ask. And if you’re not sure you trust the answer, ask a few more questions and explain why you’re doing it.
Feedback should be delivered close the event that led to the feedback. If feedback is delivered well after the event, it could be irrelevant. Or the gap in time might mean that the individual doesn’t completely understand the feedback.
Feedback is effective only when the person receiving the feedback applies it. It’s not effective if the learner forgets it or doesn’t apply it. Look for opportunities to give feedback when the learner can apply it.
Some feedback helps people learn. But not all feedback does that.
Evaluation is a type of feedback. A rating on a performance review is not the basis of development plan.
Feedback that helps people learn is focused on the task not the person. It is specific, behavioral and delivered close to the event. Feedback that doesn’t help people learn is the opposite.
Fit the feedback to the person receiving it. If the person is a novice, provide specific information about what to do, how to do it, and why. If the person is experienced, you can be more facilitative.
Feedback is only useful when it is applied.